Jorge Castañeda is Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. A renowned public intellectual, political scientist, and prolific writer, with an interest in Latin American politics, comparative politics and U.S.-Latin American relations, he is the former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), and in that position he focused on diverse issues in U.S.-Mexican relations, including migration, trade, security, and narcotics control; joint diplomatic initiatives on the part of Latin American nations; and the promotion of Mexican economic and trade relations globally.
Born in Mexico City in 1953, Dr. Castañeda received undergraduate degrees from both Princeton University and Universite de Paris-I (Pantheon-Sorbonne), an M.A. from Ecole Pratique de Hautes Etudes, Paris I, and his Ph.D. in the History of Economics from the University of Paris. He was a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1985-87) and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Grant Recipient (1989-1991). Among his many books are "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War" (1993), "The Mexican Shock" (1995), "Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara" (1997), and "Perpetuating Power: How Mexican Presidents Were Chosen" (2000). Dr. Castañeda is a regular columnist for the Mexican daily Reforma, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek International.
Question: What is Che Guevara’s continuing relevance as a thinker or symbol?
Jorge Castañeda: Well, as a thinker I don’t think he is relevant and I think he ceased being relevant in the early 60’s. And Fidel Castro also thought so which is why he invited him kindly to depart and go do his stuff elsewhere. I think he was an extraordinarily charismatic, attractive, seductive, courageous human being, but I think he had very little to say or to add to what we know about social change or economic change or modernization in Latin America or elsewhere.
As for symbolically, I think he’s immensely important because he has come, that’s the point I try and make in my book, he has come or he came to represent the societal change, the cultural change that took place in the 1960’s. This is not what he was fighting for, by the way. He was fighting for a traditional, Stalinist, communist, hard line, Marxist, Leninist revolution. He didn’t care about young people’s rights or women’s rights or sexual preferences or drugs or any of those other things. If anything, he probably would have been against them. But, he became the symbol of the revolution of societal mores of the 1960’s everywhere in the world and we are all the better for that revolution, that one having taken place. That is what led to having now a majority of women working in the workplace, not just at home. Today, everywhere. Or the majority of young people going to college in the richer countries and having possibility of choosing their lifestyles, their sexual preferences, the way they dress, they way they eat, the way they listen to music, etc. The ‘60s were an extraordinary upheaval. A peaceful revolution that really changed the way people live all over the world, and Che Guevara became the symbol of that unwillingly. This is not what he was up to. But, you never know who you work for.
Question: How did the meaning of Che’s life become abstracted from the facts of his life?
Jorge Castañeda: Well, in a sense he was, of course, unlucky because he died, but he was very lucky because he died at the right time, the right place, the right way and you don’t often have people who are able to do that in such an extraordinary fashion. He died just before 1968. He died as a martyr. He died fighting for a cause he believed in. He died with a picture. I described this in the book where how he had to be cleaned up and showed to be almost Christ-like in order for everybody to recognize him. He couldn’t be show like Saddam Hussein when he was captured in his rat hole in Iraq because then people would have said, “No, this is not him.” He had to be shown, dead of course because he was executed, but he had to be shown clean, combed, with his eyes opened and they turned him in, his murderers, turned him into an extraordinarily romantic, emblematic, photographic icon. That plus the timing plus the causes plus the place all came together to combine and turn him into the symbol of something that he wasn’t fighting for. But again, as I said, you never know who you work for.
Question: Will we ever see the likes of Che again, in Latin America or elsewhere?
Jorge Castañeda: Well, in a sense I hope not, and I’ll say why. In the same way that I don’t think and I hope we won’t see another Mandela who is the other emblematic figure of enormous stature of the last 40 or 50 years. Why do I hope we don’t have to see them again? Because I don’t want to have people in Latin America having to fight with guns in order to achieve their aims and I don’t want to see someone else in Africa spend 19 years in jail for their beliefs and their convictions and because of a repressive racist regime. I don’t want to see that. Of course it means that we probably won't see these martyrs or these extraordinary people like Mandela and we won't see a Che Guevara dying in the mountains because there's no good reason to go and die in the mountains anymore. You can achieve most of what you want in Latin America, politically, through the ballot box. You may not win the first time; you may not win the second or the third time, but so many people have won now that it is reasonable to expect that you could win one day. So, why go and give your life up in the mountains if what you can do is organize and canvas voters and win elections?
Recorded on February 1, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen